North Carolina needs to grow up. Quickly.
The Tar Heels’ tendency to play to the level of their competition is due to a lack of maturity as much as anything.
“I’m guessing that has something to do with it,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “I’ve never been on a team that’s been as up and down as we are.”
It’s easy to forget the Tar Heels are still very much a young team. Leslie McDonald is their only scholarship senior in the rotation -- and he has played in only three games. Seven of their top 10 players are freshmen and sophomores. Put it in that context and it’s easy to understand their inconsistencies.
Carolina faces UNC Wilmington on Tuesday in its last non-conference game before ACC play begins on Sunday at Wake Forest. And with it the growing pains need to end. That means no more situations like Northern Kentucky.
Paige admitted while the Heels led NKU by 14 in the first half, he started to think about a blowout. The Norse cut the lead down to five at halftime.
“At one point I was like this might be a game I play less than 30 minutes,” Paige said. “That can’t happen. I’m one of the leaders and I had that mindset so I’m imagining all my teammates kind of got that complacency as well.”
The Heels had to combat similar bouts with complacency in losses to Belmont, UAB and Texas. Paige said the league can be unforgiving on an immature team.
“In our league, teams expose that,” he said. “It’s not going to end well if we keep playing like that.”
Carolina has proven it’s talented enough to play with the best in wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky. But it hasn’t been able to maintain playing at a high level, especially when its opponent isn’t ranked.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but I really believe that this is a special team,” McDonald said. “We’re going to get some of these kinks out of our system and we’re going to come in strong for the conference and I think we can make some noise in the conference.”
In order to do that, they’ll need more consistency from several players:
Sophomore Brice Johnson has struggled in a starting role since Joel James was injured and still has to develop defensively. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto can be exhilarating and extremely frustrating all within the same dribble. Junior James Michael McAdoo's play has fluctuated all season.
“Lack of maturity now means that we can get there eventually so I hope that’s what it is,” coach Roy Williams said. “We are an extremely young club, but also we’ve played 12 games, so we’ve got to be able to bring it.”